Doctor Young watched carefully from his front porch rocker.
A small dust-cloud was swirling at the far end of his quiet street in West Pawlet, Vermont.
It moved unsteadily in his direction but soon took form; the stoop-shouldered bandy-legged gait of a Vermont quarrier was unmistakable. He made a beeline for the doctor’s house, hurried up to the porch and stumbled into the consulting room, throwing himself on the couch.
‘Ach zo!’ (Doctor Young was Swiss). He rolled his eyes and shook his head sadly—he had seen this behavior before. Following the quarrier into his office, he sat down, found pen and paper and began writing the bill.
‘Ach zo, Mr Quarry! What brings you hier today?’
It was 1918. The boom years of the slate industry were done; the bust had set in.
The bars were not yet open, Mr Quarry’s wife was vacationing in Aruba and his five kids were studying skiing in Middlebury. He needed a mental-health day.
‘Doc! You gotta help me!’ he wailed, pounding on the couch.
Doctor Young added a zero to the bill.
The Lehigh Valley in central Pennsylvania had come to life, with Chapman slate and Bangor-also known as Penn black, Penn gray, Penn-ghetto. They were geographically well placed to disrupt the Vermont supply line. Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore and DC were easily accessible and expanding markets. Knowing nothing about slate, these cities welcomed the third-rate product with open arms.
‘Doc! You’re not listening! Everybody’s hollerin’ for 22 – 11’s.’
‘Ach zo!’ Doc knew about 22 – 11’s. Too big, too much waste—a Baltimore size.
Penn-slop could be lifted from the ground with a plastic trowel, cut with a bow-saw and split with an oyster knife. Speed was required. Rushed to urban areas and hastily installed (one nail per slate), limestone leeched out quickly, delamination followed and roofs shed slate like leaves in the fall.
‘I sink you haff a problem!’ Doctor Young said, wisely, twisting his moustaches.
‘Why can’t they stop, Doc? What’s a man supposed to do?’
The roofing industry happily gobbled up cheap Pennsylvania slate. As it fell apart, roofers turned into tar-swabbers ($5 per swab), wrecking the entire industry. They worked hard to achieve the low-life status they now enjoy.
‘But Doc! There’s a lot of sizes besides 22 – 11’s! There’s 14 – 7’s, 14 – 8’s, 14 – 9’s,’ (he droned on through the entire range of slate sizes).
Doctor Young added another zero.
Roofers were discovering that big slate were faster to install (!). Pennsylvania pumped out 24 x 14’s with abandon, preferably with ribbons. Roofing was becoming a piece-work trade, a mechanic and a helper subcontracting to the developer. Vermont was hurting.
Vermont quarries had done little in the way of research and development. In a rush to take advantage of the boom, overburden was left close to the pit edge. Accidents were frequent and soldiers, returning from Europe, had little desire to resume such dangerous jobs. Skilled factory jobs were plentiful in nearby cities. It was a time of social fraction as rural areas were stripped of their cultural heritage. The repeat event after the second world-war drove nails into the coffin. More social unrest, more Penn-slush, and finally the rising head of the anti-christ—asphalt. Asphalt everything. Shingles, tiles, roll roofing; for a time experiments were made with asphalt blankets and duvets.
The session was winding up.
‘Zo! Zimple!’ Boomed Doctor Young, ‘Verk harder, charge less und get out of hier!’
Mr. Quarry lifted his dusty head from the couch. He looked hopeful.
‘Get hoff your backside, back to your quarry. It’s still light out!’
Mr. Quarry struggled to his feet. He looked invigorated, but stopped.
‘Doc, where’s my bill?’
Doctor Young calmly handed him the bill: $13,800
‘But Doc,’ protested Mr. Quarry. ‘You’re underpaying yourself! You should charge more or work less hours! Really!’
Doctor Young twisted his moustaches carefully, once more.
‘I sink you make some progress, Mr. Quarry.’